Thursday, March 18, 1999
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, located in Moss Landing, isn''t open to the public. They don''t host daily tours and they don''t sell T-shirts--unlike most establishments on the Peninsula. Instead, they''re busy exploring the depths of the Monterey Bay and developing new oceanographic equipment.
Most often, the public is exposed to MBARI''s work through exhibits at its sister institution, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. In fact, that''s the best place to learn more about MBARI, says Dr. Judith Connor, the facility''s director of Information and Technology Dissemination. One of MBARI''s main goals (found on their amazingly detailed Webpage) is to work with the Aquarium to expand the educational potential of their research, and to present it to the public through creative and educational exhibits. An upcoming product of this partnership is the "Mysteries of the Deep" exhibit, opening Mar. 20 at the Aquarium. According to Connor, "It''s the perfect example of the collaborations between the two institutions."
Although MBARI has garnered much attention lately due to their work on the Mysteries of the Deep exhibit, the animals presented at the Aquarium are just a fraction of cutting-edge research presently being conducted at the institution, Connor says. But just because the scientists and engineers are head-over-heels with excitement about a new discovery doesn''t mean the public will be as impressed. Igniting public interest in the hard sciences, where much of MBARI''s research lies, can be difficult, Connor admits.
Hopefully, the public will be drawn to MBARI''s work with the Aquarium exhibit, "Exploring Monterey Canyon." Often, the auditorium show features a live video broadcast from the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) as they delve into the depths of the bay. At this interactive exhibit, Aquarium visitors can ask an interpreter questions about interesting marine animals and plants appearing onscreen, and about the equipment used to make the dives. The exhibit puts people in touch with the work happening behind-the-scenes, "really important stuff that normally would bypass the public," adds Connor.
It also gives people the chance to see how humans impact the deep-sea environment, says Debbie Meyer, communications coordinator for MBARI. Many have the misconception that the deep-sea environment is devoid of life, and that people have no influence over that realm. Viewers only have to see a plastic bag or soda can float by to see they''re mistaken, she says.
In addition to Aquarium exhibits, another great way MBARI reaches out to the public is through their Website at www.mbari.org. It''s "one of our main public avenues," says Meyer. Containing an impressive amount of well-organized information about past and present projects, equipment, and a history of the organization, the site covers all bases. It even includes a snapshot from the camera of an ROV as it prowls around the Bay, updated every five minutes.
So far, the majority of MBARI''s research has focused on the Monterey Bay; according to the Website, it''s "one of the most biologically diverse bodies of waters in the world." Containing a large range of ocean environments, much research done in the bay can be applied to ocean environments all over the world. With the acquisition of the research vessel, the Western Flyer, MBARI has opportunities for longer expeditions, says Connor, but adds that even as they become a larger player in global science the institution will also maintain strong ties to Monterey Bay.
MBARI has the manpower and money to make bold new advances. Unlike many research institutions, MBARI doesn''t have to spend valuable time chasing down federal or state funding. A private, nonprofit research center, it has been funded almost totally by the Packard Foundation since it was founded in 1987. The 180 or so employees at MBARI don''t take the blessing of Packard Foundation funding for granted. "We can focus on doing the kind of research that other people can''t," says Connor. "They can''t get the funding to take risks."
As the 21st century approaches, Connor sees MBARI''s range of influence expanding. The institution is working to develop more advanced, yet cost-efficient instruments (such as data-collecting sensors to be placed throughout the oceans), creating a more integrated approach to the study of marine environments. And, says Meyer, MBARI wants to share new technological developments so as to benefit the whole oceanographic community. "We don''t want to sit on what we develop," she explains.
With that enthusiasm comes the determination to push MBARI to its fullest potential in the research arena, as well as a commitment to encouraging public interest in ocean environments. "We''re doing amazing research, but it''s not just for the sake of science," says Connor. "We can also use it to help educate the public." cw